Cristina NualART

Tag: Vietnam

The Schwarzenegger Ghostsign and other gems from Ho Chi Minh City’s public space

The Schwarzenegger Hide and Seek is my book chapter in Advertising and Public Memory, published by Routledge. For this investigation, I found rare examples of hand-painted shop signs still visible in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, in the second decade of the 21st century. Visual research suggests that urban Vietnam had a strong body of hand-painted signs, even during war time, but few examples now survive in this country that has developed rapidly in recent decades. Hand-painted shop signs, adverts and propaganda have practically disappeared from the public space, overtaken by vast quantities of computer-generated signage commonly printed on plastic or vinyl.

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The photos in the book are greyscale, but here you can admire the signs in full colour:

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Hand painted sign for Chánh Nghia cake decorators, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Photo by Cristina Nualart, 2015

 

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Hand painted sign (now gone) on body building club, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Photo by Cristina Nualart, 2011

 

As someone who is fascinated by the power of the object, especially the found object, from arte povera to material culture, my interest in hand painted signs is quite predictable. Stories of my first thrills in this field in Vietnam appear in this post from 2012: The last hand painted sign in Saigon.

 

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Research paper: Queer Art from Vietnam

My paper Queer art in Vietnam: from closet to pride in two decades is an open-access publication by Palgrave.

 

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ABSTRACT:

Male and female artists in Vietnam from the early 1990s to the new millennium have contributed art that gives visibility to non-normative lifestyles that go against the traditional values espoused by national rhetoric. This article explores some of the first manifestations of queer art in contemporary Vietnam, outlining a short history of artworks that may be considered “queer” because of their subject matter, irrespective of whether they were made by straight or queer identified artists. Many of these artworks are not made in traditional media, or they break conventions in the local artistic canon. Frequently they have performative characteristics, an art form that arose in Vietnam in the 1990s, the beginning of the timeframe explored here. Photography, another medium not long or firmly established, is also extensively employed. The narrative attends specifically to the dissidence, in content or format, of selected artworks, and points to a correlation over time to an increased tolerance of homosexuality.

THE MADWOMAN, a poem by Hoang Hung

THE MADWOMAN

Carrying a broken stick on her head
she walks and sings
Evening comes gradually at the end of the street

She walks and sings
Fragments of a tranquil song
break in my heart

Alas, the madness of tile and brick
Please sing and sing again
of all the destruction
you carry in your head

 

In:
Black dog, black night: Contemporary Vietnamese Poetry.
Edited and translated by Nguyen Do and Paul Hoover.

(Permission was sought from editor to post this poem, but after a year no answer was received. Please note that copyright lies with publisher and poet. This poem is not covered by this site’s Creative Commons license.)

Rubble Mural featured in Word magazine

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The rubble mural I made for the LIN community centre in Saigon is featured in the August 2014 issue of Word Vietnam magazine, pages 83 to 87.

25 Years of Freedom – A Vietnamese Gallery’s Vision

ArtRadar_article_screenshot_webThis article was published on Art Radar on 1 August 2014.

 

From the postwar to Vietnam’s economic boom, Tu Do Gallery has been running successfully for a quarter of a century in Ho Chi Minh City.

Over a decade after the unification of Vietnam, the regime’s Doi Moi reforms allowed private enterprises to be formed. One of the first of these enterprises was Tu Do art gallery. 25 years later, it continues to operate from its base in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon).

I asked the owner Mr Dang Son, who is now 78, the same question that many of his friends had asked him when he started out: how could an art gallery survive in a country with so many pressing needs? ‘Luckily’, he smiles.

In the late 80s, husband and wife Son and Ha reunited after his return from a re-education camp. The couple lived in a house on the centrally located Dong Khoi street (formerly Tu Do, meaning freedom), which they renovated to turn into a shop. When Nguyen Tuan Khanh, the artist better known as Rung, suggested that he exhibit his paintings in their house, the would-be shop became the first private gallery in South Vietnam.

There was no artistic activity in the city, the gallery owner explains, because there were virtually no public or private art spaces in fresh-faced Vietnam.

Read the full article on Art Radar here.

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Text and photos (2010-2014) by Cristina Nualart

 

The Hong Kong – Vietnam art connection

HK-VN_WordJuly14This article was published in Word Vietnam magazine, July 2014, pp.88-90.

 

HK_cnualart_BuiCongKhanhBui Cong Khanh’s installation The Past Moved (2010) at Hong Kong Art Basel 2013.
Art galleries continue to invest in expensive Hong Kong floorspace to show Vietnamese artworks. Why is so much Vietnamese art shown in Hong Kong? Is it time to bring the trade back home, or is the Chinese metropolis the locus of success?

Half of the Vietnamese alive today weren’t born when all this started
For most of the 20th century, no country outside of Vietnam (and a few in the Eastern Bloc) ever saw contemporary Vietnamese art. Despite a rich 70 year tradition of painting, much art was under wraps even in Vietnam, where mistrust and censorship kept things lying low for decades. In Hanoi, art ‘collectors’ were friends of the artists, who mainly bought the artworks to help the painters survive. That changed in 1991, when a Hong Kong art gallery, Plum Blossoms, presented Uncorked Soul, a group exhibition of Vietnamese artists. ‘The exhibition had a startling effect, if not an immediate one’, says Nora Taylor, art historian at the Chicago School of Art, ‘it took a few years for galleries and museums elsewhere to notice Vietnamese contemporary art.’ But foreign collectors jumped at the opportunity.

In the early 90s, Hong Kong’s yuppies travelled to Hanoi for exotic weekends away. For investment and pleasure, they would buy ten or twelve Vietnamese paintings at a time, recalls Suzanne Lecht, an art consultant. Suzanne’s life was transformed by Vietnamese art. Graduates from the Hanoi Fine Arts University were the first generation that, from the early 1980s, could choose to paint something other than propaganda art. When Suzanne encountered the art of ‘the Gang of 5’, as five of the graduates called themselves, she was inspired to make their art her mission. With no time to waste, Suzanne moved from Japan to Hanoi in 1993, the same year that Vietnamese art was exhibited internationally for the second time, in Holland.

Plum Blossoms are not just for Tet
Plum Blossoms was the first foreign gallery to introduce Vietnamese painters abroad. Over ten artists from the north, centre and south were chosen for Uncorked Soul. Many of the artists had worked with the first government owned art gallery in Hanoi, founded in 1965. At that point, not one was known outside Vietnam.   In 1991, the Vietnamese authorities had just lifted the ban on abstract art. At the Plum Blossoms exhibition, abstract paintings shone radiantly in their newfound freedom. Figurative works had transitioned from Socialist Realist iconography into more expressive images. New artistic forces were born.   Instrumental to the Uncorked Soul show was the hardback catalogue. It wasn’t just a book to be judged by its stylish cover. Today one might say it was an effective marketing tool. But the text, by writer Jeffrey Hantover, enlightened the outside world on how modern Vietnamese painting – that obscure and exciting art – had evolved. Interviews with the artists and some historical background helped art lovers see the importance of what these artists were looking at. It probably contributed to more than one investment in art, and at high returns, no doubt.

NguyenTrung_UncorkedSoulNguyen Trung featured in the Uncorked Soul exhibition catalogue.
Nguyen Trung’s uncorked soul
Mekong Delta artist Nguyen Trung, now in his seventies, was one of the artists whose work first made it to Hong Kong. In his youth, wanting to see French art at its best, Nguyen Trung had tried to escape to Paris in the 1960s. His plan failed the first time, but the painter did get to Paris 30 years later. Many of the paintings he made in his year Paris in 1990 were exhibited in Uncorked Soul. In Hong Kong, Trung also had the opportunity to discover powerful artworks by Chinese artists, and this made an impression on his eager soul.

Other Vietnamese artists were also excited to visit what was then a British territory. In 1997, Suzanne Lecht organised another exhibition in Hong Kong, The Changing Face of Hanoi, taking all five exhibiting artists with her. For most of them, it was their first trip outside of Vietnam. This show was smaller in scale and scope than the exhibition at Plum Blossoms gallery a few years earlier, but it kept Vietnamese art from slipping back into invisibility during the transformative Doi Moi decade.

Hong Kong makes Hanoi look up and Hanoi makes Hong Kong look around
Vietnam transformed in all directions. A Hong Kong company in 1995 had built the first high rise in Hanoi, the Central Building (31 Hai Ba Trung). Suzanne had assisted the developer, a supporter of Vietnamese art, to procure two large bronze statues by sculptor Le Cong Thanh for the building’s entrance. Hong Kong investors gave Hanoi something to look up to.

Another First
Whilst the Uncorked Soul exhibition was a phenomenal promotion for Vietnamese art, international fairs are the best publicity. The people milling about at art fairs, dealers, collectors, museum curators and general art lovers are the first ones to notice changes and new developments in the art world. The first Vietnamese gallery to participate in an international art fair was Galerie Quynh. From 2010 to 2012, Quynh had a yearly booth at Art Hong Kong, the original Hong Kong art fair. ‘In those 3 years we saw very few Vietnamese visitors’, laments Quynh. But she did sell to a small number of Vietnamese from the diaspora, and, of course, to foreigners. Now in their tenth year of operation, the gallery is working hard in Vietnam to build trust with affluent locals, who are increasingly keen to learn about art.  

HKArtFair11_HoangDuongCam_cnualart_GQLightning in U Minh Forest  by Hoang Duong Cam. Galerie Quynh, Hong Kong Art Fair 2011.

VN art in the noughties
From the nineties to the noughties Vietnam got richer. Not evenly or consistently, but abundantly enough to energise the country with buying buzz. Expensive handbags, however, are higher up the Vietnamese shopping list than paintings, comments Shyevin, owner of Vin Gallery in HCMC.

Like most other gallerists, Shyevin, although based in Vietnam, knows that sales will often be better elsewhere. She has done art fairs in Korea, Singapore and, of course, Hong Kong.  Hers was the only Vietnamese art gallery in the luxury Hong Kong hotel that hosted the Asia Contemporary Art Fair in May this year. Vin Gallery received visits from a few Vietnamese who live in Hong Kong. ‘They were very happy to see our gallery there, and came to say hello,’ Shyevin is pleased to say. But they don’t buy, she notes, ‘they think is cheaper back home’. Foreign visitors were curious about Vietnamese art, surprised to actually see some. Lots of questions were asked, especially about lacquer painting. Sales were made, with Hanoi landscapes making it to the bestseller list omeprazole dosage. Vin Gallery had competition at the fair. A number of Hong Kong galleries who deal in Vietnamese art were also exhibiting at Asia Contemporary.

Another Saigon-based professional, Craig Thomas, knows this. The Craig Thomas gallery, which shows Vietnamese art exclusively, participated in the Affordable Art Fair in Hong Kong this year, and will be returning next year. The well-organised fair, he said, attracted a large number of buyers from China.

Decades after the Plum Blossoms success, artist Nguyen Trung’s work is still shipped to Hong Kong. His latest abstract canvases and new sculptures were admired merely weeks ago, in Art Basel. Cuc Gallery from Hanoi was the only Vietnamese gallery to participate in one of 2014’s most prestigious art fairs worldwide.  Asian collectors, savvy about the cultural and historical value of Trung’s work, took out their credit cards.

HK_cnualart_CucCuc at her booth, surrounded by Nguyen Trung’s artworks in Hong Kong Art Basel 2014.

Evidently, art collectors are interested in Vietnamese art. But all the gallerists mentioned here agree on one thing, that the collectors of Vietnamese art are rarely Vietnamese.‘Hong Kong is the biggest banking centre in the world. It’s a good market’, says Suzanne Lecht, ‘Vietnam is a small market’. She compares the situation to Japan in the 1980s. Rich Japanese would only buy artworks by Mattisse or other famous names because the worth would be known. ‘It’s the same in Vietnam now’, she says. Like Shyevin, she sees that the shopping priorities of wealthy Vietnamese are geared towards status symbols. The solution to keeping the best Vietnamese art in Vietnam, then, must be to brand Vietnamese art as an object of desire on a global scale.

HK_cnualart_PropTalkSan Art curator Zoe Butt and The Propeller Group talking at Hong Kong Art Basel 2014.

 

Text and photos (2011-2014) by Cristina Nualart

 

How is lacquer painting evolving in the 21st century?

TuDo_Word_April14_cnualartThis article was published in Word Vietnam magazine, April 2014, p.166.

 

“MEMORIES”, lacquer exhibition by 5 artists,
Tu Do gallery, 53 Ho Tung Mau, D1, HCMC, Vietnam.
Until 30 March 2014.

 

Imagine inspecting molten asphalt that has been poured like lava over Pompeii. Tu Do’s group exhibition of lacquer paintings should be looked at close up. Forget what the shapes may represent. Get close enough to smell the oily vapours of the medium.

 

One must put aside dismissive prejudices about subject matter to see how lacquer painting is evolving. Bear in mind that even the Le brothers, the Hue duo of rising art stars who recently participated in the Singapore Biennale, make brightly coloured lacquers that on first impressions look a lot like shop-ready commercial art, whilst simultaneously creating stunning video work and metaphorically rich performance art.

TuDoLacquer1_cnualartThe mid to late 90s in Vietnam were still a time in which experimental artworks were uncommon. That art was made at all during those difficult times should be celebrated. For this reason Phunam’s conventional lacquers are, for the period, not to be dismissed. His are the oldest works in this exhibition. Works made a decade later are understandably richer in new techniques, but Phunam’s large depiction of a tribal musical performance should be admired for the complimentary colour contrast beating all over the picture. The faces, too, are unusual in their balaklava-like synthesis.

TuDoLacquer2_cnualartTradition demands that a lacquer painting should be sanded and rubbed until all brushstrokes have been bulldozed into a perfectly flat image. Xuan Chieu is the artist in this show who best represents that esteemed practice. Inlays of eggshell and mother of pearl have been finely grinded. Patches of gold leaf gleam amongst the original powdered mineral colours that tradition calls for: three shades of red, and ocres. Geometric forms in indigo blue and forest green are rarer in first generation lacquer paintings, so enjoy their Sapa-like coolness.

TuDoLacquer3_cnualartThe pastel colours in Duong Tuan Kiet’s paintings indicate that they contain little natural lacquer, a treacle too dark to permit sugar pinks and mint greens, when used as art schools teach. His pieces look like oil panting on canvas, whereas lacquer is always painted on smooth wooden surfaces. Kiet does cover the blank canvas in gold leaf before he paints, a technique used in lacquer to give glow to the painting. These canvases propose another innovation in lacquer’s evolution: its inclusion into the vast collection of ‘mixed media’ paintings.

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TuDoLacquer5_cnualartVo Xuan Huy is an art lecturer from Hue who tries to take lacquer painting to the third dimension. Thick impasto, deep cracks, puddles of honeyed glass and ripples formed by fast evaporation are the geography of his abstracts. Lotus flowers, Chi circles and other easy symbols stamped into the pigmented mud do seem to cheapen the visual experience from afar, but I have not come across another artist who is so keen to sabotage the polished surface of traditional lacquer.

TuDoLacquer6_cnualartNguyen Xuan Anh moves from urban depictions to experimental abstracts. The latter are very interesting. The two large ones in this show are vigourous expressionistic exercises, with texture reminiscent of Tapies and graphic power as strong as Franz Kline’s. Anh collages sack cloth and drips colour onto otherwise traditionally crafted lacquers abundant in polished eggshell.

Whilst other lacquer artists elsewhere are creating new finishes by using spray paint and glass-like polyester resin, the art in this show is innovative within the limits of possibility of natural lacquer.

The Ghost of Cho Van Thanh

After nearly 3 years, I finished this layered drawing. It didn’t take 2 years of work, but perhaps I needed that time to reflect on my disappointment at what I perceived to be the destruction of a cultural icon. In 2011 I witnessed the demolition of the market in Saigon known as Cho Van Thánh. I’d grown fond of the rusty old letters on what appeared to be a greyish modernist building.

In fact, the large, covered market was built in 1994, during the Doi Moi period, when Vietnam was implementing the economic reforms that would reshape its route to progress. The geometrical details that reminded me of 1960s architecture took on a poignant meaning. After the war, the country had been so isolated from the rest of the world that the designs it produced had not evolved for a whole generation, they were frozen in time.*

Diggers have become an interesting artistic subject matter for me. A Vietnamese friend told me that some people refer to them as ghosts, and that when passing in front diggers, many Vietnamese will remain silent omeprazole 20 mg. Diggers are scary. In this rapidly developing land, they can destroy ancestor’s graves, and there was a time when the Vietnamese government wouldn’t allow the relocation of graves. Ancestor worship, a popular belief system throughout the country, requires visits to ancestors tombs, to pay respect.

This subdued image pays respect to the defunct market, symbol of a faded era that has been left behind, much to the relief of many in Vietnam, who are instead embracing the introduction of a market economy.

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Cristina Nualart. The Ghost of Cho Van Thanh. 2011-2014.

Pencil, watercolour, acrylic, house paint and gold leaf on Saunders Waterford paper, 76 x 56 cm.

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* A similar thing had occurred in Spain after the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). According to Antigüedad del Castillo-Olivares (2011), Spain was left out of international developments in architecture for over 10 years, and it was only when the country’s economy started to improve, from well into the 1950s, that architecture returned to a ‘normal’ stage of progress.

Antigüedad del Castillo-Olivares, María Dolores, 2011, ‘La Arquitectura después de la Segunda Guerra Mundial’, En: Mª Dolores Antigüedad del Castillo-Olivares, Víctor Nieto Alcaide, Amparo Serrano de Haro Soriano. El arte del siglo XX : metamorfosis del arte, Madrid: Editorial Universitaria Ramón Areces, 165-205.

We Are Asia – Art Stage Singapore 2014

This article was cross-posted on the Hanoi Grapevine.

<span style="line-height: 1 read here.5em;”>marinabaysandssilouhette_cnualart‘We Are Asia’ was the title of the 4th edition of Art Stage. Of the many art fairs mushrooming all over Asia, Art Stage Singapore has probably chosen the most glamorous venue: Marina Bay Sands. Yet the 4th edition of this fair tried to counteract the elitism that the artworld sometimes lounges in.

Art Stage attempted to bridge the gap between high-brow collectors and the general public. For a commercial art fair, it offered more tours than many museums. Art stage organisers planned a strong educational programme to attract a middle class audience that might otherwise shy away from all the glitz and price tags with lots of zeros.

Many of the scheduled tours focused on the regional platforms, as they termed 8 mini-exhibitions on Southeast Asia, India, China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Australia and Central Asia. Commissioned to specialist curators, the platforms were a commercial venture (all the works were for sale) but with a clear aim to highlight regional characteristics of the art from each area.

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The platforms served also as a welcome respite from the aisles of eye-catching but barren works that populate art fairs: quirky sculptures, embroidered canvases, Manga style figures, gloss and glitter. Below is a selection of the more intellectually captivating artworks from these platforms.

From China, artist Qiu Zhijie presents a multi-artist project on fantasy sculptures, and this ink drawing:  The Politics of Laughing (detail), 2013, 145 x 220 cm. Take a moment to read some locations and wonder at the real places you would give each name to.
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Korean photographer Seung-Woo Back has done an analogue remix in Utopia, a wall-to-wall photograph framed in strips. Each strip was developed in a different country, which explains the colour variations. The cityscape of monolithic, sterile buildings is of North Korea. The cold colours and lack of people add a fearsome tint to the massive skyscrapers.
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The Australian Platform was the weakest, with inconsistent topics, quality and approaches. The only remarkable piece was this video installation called Syria. This timely piece by Lebanese-Australian Khaled Sabsabi is a remix of Damascus footage cut to move in neverending islamic patterns.
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From the Philippines, Mark Justiniani recreates traditional wooden boats, inventing a low-tech way to create optical illusions of baffling perspective and depth.
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Singaporean artist Donna Ong uses hand cut pictures from old books in her commissioned furniture lightboxes titled And We Were Like Those Who Dream. Patient handcrafting gives the objects a magical appearance that is really heart warming. The pieces work as little treasure troves, like Orhan Pamuk’s memorabilia in the Museum of Innocence.
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Taiwanese artist Tu Wei-Cheng supports in vintage furniture his optical illusions. The Emperor’s Chest is the story of how forgotten Victorian toys and other antique devices become alive again in cabinets and dressing tables. Like in The Nutcracker, once the toys are alive, they become real. The people are contemporary dancers in a multilayered cityscape, a theatre of the absurd. artstage2014_cnualart_tuweicheng

FX Harsono, from Indonesia, authored one of the most powerful artworks in the whole fair. He also uses furniture, but combines multiple message channels in the installation: from the artist’s own poetry, to LED light displays, to book covers. The Raining Bed splashes political commentary in a direct, clever and visually evocative way. The books asleep on the bed have titles like ‘The Smug General’, ‘The Rise and fall of the Great Powers’, or ‘The History of Malaysia’. The poem scrolling on the wall can be read in Indonesian and English. It says ‘In my sleep I entangled the past, at the tip of the pen history is predicted, at the tip of the gun history is deceived, at the end of the fountain history washed away.’
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Another exciting piece uses old books from the artist’s personal childhood library. Crammed with nostalgia, Haslin Ismail’s Book Land is an imaginative jungle of landscapes, adventurous people and mysterious territories waiting for a reader to discover them. The artwork appears to be a carved and folded homage to the pleasure of literature. The Malay artist, however, confesses that he hates reading, but is in awe of the power of books to fill the mind with stories and knowledge. By making books more tactile and sculptural, he controls the worry experienced by reticent readers.
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Soe Naing, from Myanmar, locked himself in a large glass box, inside which he hung daily sketches. In reference to the censorship that has vetoed so much art in his country, the viewer can barely see the sketches, as the glass is painted black. The artist, from the inside, scratches away at the black paint, from which squinting onlookers try to see the drawings. The piece is called Intermission on Stage, and it does what it says.
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The Southeast Asian platform was the largest and richest, not surprisingly since the hosting country is at the heart of the vivacious region. What was surprising was the lack of Vietnamese artists. It would be very difficult to curate a representative show that included every country, and token presences would be detrimental, but one has to wonder why no Vietnamese artist made it to the final selection.

However, Cuc gallery from Hanoi was the first Vietnamese gallery to participate in Art Stage. The booth featured abstracts by Nguyen Trung and Duong Thuy Lieu and figure paintings by Do Hoang Tuong and Ly Tran Quynh Giang.

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Another Vietnamese artist, Nguyen The Dung, is represented by Hong Kong based AP gallery.
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Mylyn Nguyen is an Australian artist of Vietnamese heritage. She filled the Brenda May gallery booth with environmental concerns, buzzing around in an installation of minute paper bees, some with micro houses on their backs.
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Photography had a strong presence across many of the booths in Art Stage. Photographs with manipulated, collaged or threaded interventions are testament of the medium’s evolution in the Fine Art sphere, and amongst art buyers in Asia.

In all, the fair was a successful event for the participants, and a welcome art experience for the general public. It was not packed with striking new discoveries, but it offered sufficient new ideas to keep regular art fair goers on their toes. And the mission to engage a wider audience with thematic tours is something more in the art establishment should consider doing.

 

 

Vietnam’s 2013 art scene ends with a bang: Tiffany Chung

This article was published in Word Vietnam magazine, January 2014, p.16.

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In Vietnam, it is rare to see exhibitions of the most prominent Vietnamese artists. The stars of the country’s artworld are in high demand in art fairs, biennials and museums of other parts of the globe. In her career spanning little over a decade, Tiffany has, on average, exhibited 1 solo show and 2 groups shows every year, and participated in 1 biennial or triennial every 2 years. Her art has travelled from cities across the US, to Asia, Australia, Europe, and the Middle East.

The last time Tiffany’s paintings and sculptures were shown in Vietnam was 5 years ago, at Galerie Quynh, HCMC, where her new show An Archeology Project for Future Remembrance can be seen until 10 January 2014.

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This exhibition is possibly the first in Vietnam that shows the type of interdisciplinary research that is making waves in intellectual circles. At some point in the second half of the 20th century, the modernist admiration for the instinctual genius of the artist gave way to a trend for intelligent artworks that demonstrated the artist’s ability to articulate theories and illustrate concepts. Saigon resident Tiffany Chung’s brainpower seems to be switched onto hyperactive all the time.

Tiffany speaks with energy and sharp insight. Her research is a solid back up for her unapologetic opinions. For a long time, she has been a good friend of Erik Harms, assistant professor of Anthropoly at Yale. In the Dong Khoi space, the collaboration between the artist and the anthropologist is presented linearly. Excerpts from Erik Harms next book are glossy art objects. Selected passages of colonialist propaganda and historical descriptions of Saigon are also readable art. But the research is not just text, it is drawn into the maps and crafted into the sculptures.

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The drawings on vellum paper, velvety and translucent, are based on historical maps or futuristic maps projecting urban plans of areas yet to be built. The gleeful layers of the drawing, minute doodley patterns in pretty colours, deceive us into thinking they are imaginative fabrications. Their hidden research tells other stories. The maps – a trademark of her art practice – critique the political decisions that shape borders, lead to wars, construct artificial communities or displace people. The six map drawings in this show are specifically about areas in South Vietnam, mostly referencing the forced evictions of people who lived on land the government wants to turn into a fancy financial district. The 3 channel video art also comments on that issue.

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 The gem of the exhibition is the hanging installation Stored in a jar: monsoon, drowning fish, color of water, and the floating world. The piece was commissioned by the Singapore Biennale in 2011. On glass puddles, dozens of miniature houses, houseboats and boats are aligned with neat gardens reminiscent of a middle-class American suburb.

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Detailed architectural models are inspired by traditional Asian design and materials. Rather than glorifying colonial architecture, Tiffany’s art admires older vernacular architecture. Not for sentimental reasons, however. The design of her mini housing project is informed by in depth research, adapting ideas from all over the region, from Japan to Thailand as well as Vietnam, and crafting the models with cutting-edge technology. The modern and the traditional coexist.

The overall magical appearance of this calming and poised artwork is a plan for a portable model of sustainable urbanism. Wooden houses, some on stilts, have solar panels and rainwater collectors. One of Tiffany’s pet topics is climate change. The evidence, she illustrates, is that the Mekong region will be in knee-deep trouble in coming decades. Floods will increase their devastating capacity, so we should prepare for it. Perhaps creating floating communities.

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Artist Himiko Nguyen comes back from the dark.

This article was published in Word Vietnam magazine, December 2013, pp. 98-99.

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Himiko working in her Old Dreams studio. Photo by Cristina Nualart 2013

Himiko working in her Old Dreams studio. Photo by Cristina Nualart 2013

Himiko working in her Old Dreams studio. Photo by Cristina Nualart 2013

Himiko's artwork in her Old Dreams studio. Photo by Cristina Nualart 2013

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‘What are you doing?’ asked elder sister.
‘I’m looking for hell’, answered Be Chinh, the little girl who was digging up the earth with a knife. In My Tho, her hometown in the Mekong Delta, her family called the youngest sibling Baby Nine. Hoang, her real name, found hell much later, in Saigon, but she is climbing out of it admirably well.

Last year, a friend called me with bad news. A local newspaper had reported that Hoang, popularly known as Himiko, was in a coma following a road accident. The cause of the accident varies with the source. Depending on the newspaper, the friend, or the day you ask Himiko herself, it either involved alcohol (although several of her friends report that she doesn’t drink), or someone who drove into her while she stood on a pavement, or that she lost control of a friend’s powerful motorbike that she’d borrowed.

Whatever happened, it led to grave head injuries. Surgeons cut out a piece of her cranium to minimise the damage of brain swelling. She was in a very dangerous coma for days. Weeks later, conscious again, she started a visual diary on Facebook. The unflinching photos of stitches and scars are not for the faint hearted. They are testament to the highly skilled medical team, who grafted back the part of the skull bone they had frozen.

Himiko says her life turned into a Korean film: following a dramatic accident, the protagonist breaks up with their lover, and it all ends in tears.

Storms of tears flowed. Not from pain. ‘After the accident I was always crying loudly and having tantrums, like a 5 year old child,’ she laughs. ‘People who are broken in the head come back as children.’ The thirtysomething artist chuckles, ‘I think now I’m 13.’

Himiko’s grin turns into an intense expression. She explains that researching brain injuries has helped her understand the changes caused by the accident, the recovery process, and the split from her former partner. She raves about Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED talk on brain science.

In less than a year, her recovery has been remarkable. ‘I didn’t die because before I had done yoga training 3 or 4 days a week,’ she says beaming. Himiko tackled her rehabilitation like a steamroller, but acknowledges the care she received. She’s particularly grateful to the free acupuncture treatment a volunteer gave her, to reduce the facial paralysis.

Concussion can affect language skills. The first time I saw Himiko after the accident she told me she wanted to practice English, because her Vietnamese had become childish. This is coming from someone who studied Russian, and who worked as a translator in Japan to save money to study art.

‘My family do not understand about art. My family is very poor, we couldn’t all study at university,’ says the ninth sibling who started making origami art for friends’ birthdays, since she could not afford to buy gifts. She put herself through university and saw her art prices rise to the top of her cohort. ‘5 years and beginning’ was Himiko’s university thesis, finished in 2005 after 5 years at art school. She’s now onto another beginning, one in which she wears hats more than she used to. But inside her head, I imagine fireworks. Her ambitions and artistic ideas must flash around at strobe speed.

Himiko continues to make art from her ‘Old Dreams’ studio in central HCMC. Any artwork she sells is funding her dreams, new or old. Excited about her next project, a further development of a photographic series titled ‘Come Out’, Himiko emails curators at luxury hotels, takes calls from galleries, and receives private collectors. ‘She is a true artist. She has given up everything for art,’ applauds one of these private collectors, who has known Himiko since the start of her art career.

Her career started only two months after graduating, when she opened the first ‘Himiko café’. It was in the living room of a shared house. ‘I thought of opening a café because Vietnamese people always go in cafes, they don’t want to go in galleries and museums. They don’t know museums,’ Himiko analyses.

Saigon was a different place in 2005. There were hardly any galleries. Himiko’s success was to find a way to show art that suited the local mindset. Her determination to have more than the one exhibition a year she might get if she relied on other art spaces sparked it off. She knew the strengths and weaknesses of local artists.  ‘If artists want to exhibit in San Art [which didn’t exist at the time] or Galerie Quynh, they need to write a proposal and this is difficult. With Himiko they got a yes. I understand them.’ Her low bureaucracy approach gave opportunities to many, and the rotating exhibitions made the café a more interesting place to go.

At first, she says, customers didn’t care about the artwork. People came because word of mouth rated hers as one of the top cafes in HCMC. Himiko makes it sound like it was easy, but organising exhibitions with young artists had its challenges. ‘Saigon artists want to be free,’ Himiko observes. ‘They cannot keep time. The exhibition is always installed one week after the deadline.’ She learnt to wait until the artwork was actually on the walls before informing the newspapers about the exhibition opening.

The grass roots, low-fi approach might suggest a somewhat provincial art style. Not Himiko’s. Far from it. Her artwork is in two important collections of Vietnamese art.

One day the authorities came to close down the alternative art space they had kept a eye on. The culprit was nude photography, too risqué for millennial Vietnam. But Himiko café was reborn a second time in a different location. It lasted some years before the same thing happened again. She opened a third, but was unable to keep it following her accident. She is now waiting for an investor to help her set up a new café. She ploughed money from her art sales in the cafes. Now Himiko owes nothing, but is back at square one.

It shouldn’t be a problem for her to begin again. ‘If you believe in good you get good energy,’ she says. Before the accident she got on with her life and didn’t think much about others. Now the sound of an ambulance makes her take stock. ‘Before [the accident] I didn’t care,’ she says, explaining how positive thinking gives strength, ‘but now I care.’

Himiko working in her Old Dreams studio. Photo by Cristina Nualart 2013

Himiko working in her Old Dreams studio. Photo by Cristina Nualart 2013

Follow Himiko’s writings on http://himikocafe.blogspot.com/

   “I am a sculptor. I don’t know about Picasso and Van Gogh.
I don’t know about History painting. I make the art I like.”
Himiko

Text and photos by Cristina Nualart.

Ha-ha! A graffiti artist’s magical trip to Saigon

This article was published in Word Vietnam magazine, December 2013, p.16.

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How do you explain your job to people? In a recent interview, a non-starving artist based in South East Asia said he is ‘a dancing poodle for the 1%’.  Another artist, Ha-ha has a business card that says he is an ‘alien theorist’. Being an artist has its perks.

Ha-ha believes that aliens can help us achieve solar consciousness, which is a step above from planetary consciousness, which is what we would achieve if we connected with trees, fish and all living beings on earth. Connection is a word Ha-ha uses a lot, both in relation to technology, and, I infer, a metaphysical form of bonding with others. Think Avatar, but without the Smurf blue.

haha_by_cnualart4Aliens are just like us’, says this graffiti artist. On his first visit to Vietnam, Ha-ha talked extensively about collective consciousness, archetypes, alternative realities, and other uncommon phenomena. I should have asked him if he has met many aliens, but my mind was clouded with visions of Age of Aquarius predictions.  I learnt, for example, that since Disney has acquired Star Wars, future episodes of the series will become a form mind control.

The original Star Wars film, Ha-ha believes, is a veritable encyclopedia of archetypes. After seeing the film in childhood, he began to draw pictures of spaceships and of Darth Vader, whom he thought was a good character, not an evil one. Prophetic…

The nickname Ha-ha comes from another media character: a boy in The Simpsons series who bleats ‘ha-ha’ when he hits other kids.

Ha-ha’s real name, Regan Tamanui, rings of his Maori ancestry. Fed magic mushroom soup by his grandmother from the age of 5, Ha-ha decided early on that he was going to be an artist. His career started taking off in his 20s, after he moved to Australia. There he joined the first group of Stuckists that formed outside of England. The Stuckists advocated for a return to good, old fashioned painting. Ha-ha made oil paintings.

The he tried spray-paint, and things took a turn for the better. He is now ranked as one of the world’s most influential street artists. He doesn’t say ‘street art’ though, he deplores that elitist way of referring to graffiti.

His artistic trademark is to merge two separate stencil portraits, overlapping two faces. These stencil fusions began as a way to illustrate archetypes. The bond in relationships  -between couples, people and robots, people and animals-  is an archetype. The pair is more than the sum of its part. This unity, easy for all of us to understand, is a small-scale version of collective consciousness. Ha-ha hopes we will elevate and ‘connect to a higher consciousness. Hopefully it will be a love consciousness.’

haha_by_cnualart5Acetate is Ha-ha’s tool. The artist cuts the transparent film into templates for spray-painting. For some portraits, he needs to cuts over 60 sheets of acetate to get all the detail. The front of his sketchbook is tattooed with rows of numbers. They’re not numerological charts. He notes how many metres of acetate he gets through, and how many cuts he makes. It’s a trick to keep focused. Ha-ha practices art as a form of meditation.

In October 2013, Ha-ha was invited, quite spontaneously, to be the first artist in residence at Saigon Outcast. It was quick and easy to bring him over from Singapore, where he was exhibiting, to live and work in one of the shipping containers overlooking a wasteland in District 2 for a month. Ha-ha enjoyed his first visit to Vietnam, and devoted himself to creating a series of portraits of Ho Chi Minh. The works, sprayed on walls or on paper, show the figurehead of a young man, or as the unmistakable legendary president.

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‘With the internet, and the global collective consciousness, we are manifesting this god, a god that is there and has answers for us. If you want something, you can just, like, order a pizza online, and it gets delivered in 20 minutes.’

 

 Text and photos by Cristina Nualart

 

Unless otherwise specified, text and images © 2017 Cristina Nualart

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.



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